Aruna Roy no longer a part of the National Advisory Council
Ms Aruna Roy recently wrote to the National Advisory Council (NAC) Chairperson Ms Sonia Gandhi not to extend her tenure and her request has been accepted. With the end of her tenure on May 31, 2013 the NAC would miss the wisdom of an important voice who spoke for the marginalised citizens of the society. We have tried to analyse the reasons and impact of her leaving the NAC on the governance, especially on Right to Information (RTI) movement in the country.
Let us first have a look at her evolution over the years.
Who is Ms Aruna Roy?
Ms Aruna Roy was born in Chennai in 1946, and her family moved to New Delhi when she was four. She studied at the Convent of Jesus and Mary for the next 5 years before shifting back to Chennai. She studied at Kalakshetra learning art, dance and classical music and then at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, followed by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Delhi. She joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 1968 where she continued till her resignation in 1974.
After resignation, she plunged into full time public work and joined the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Tilonia, Rajasthan, which had been set up by her husband Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy. Very little is being written in the media about her family life.
In 1983, she moved to Devdungri, Rajsamand District, Rajasthan and later in 1987, she along with Shanker Singh, Nikhil Dey and many others helped to form the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The platform of public hearings or “Jan Sunwais” pioneered by the MKSS in the mid 1990s attracted the attention of the media and gradually evolved into a means of public audit and democratic participation all over the country. The MKSS has been deeply involved with the movement demanding the Right to Work, which played an important role in ensuring the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in 2005 in India.
Her work has led to shocking revelations of the many development projects being only on paper and siphoning of public money. Slogans like “Our money, our records” galvanised people leading to the belief that people have the right to audit their leaders. It has steered involvement of the citizens in the planning and implementation of the policies. Such empowerment of the people has led to impartial investigation and even return of stolen funds.
Apart from the MKSS, she is a member the National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information, NAPM, PUCL and similar campaigns. She is one of the founders of the movement for Right to Information (RTI) in India and is credited for getting Right to Information law passed. She has also been a member of different public hearings, tribunals and peoples commissions including the “Concerned Citizens Tribunal”, which investigated the organized violence and killings of innocent people in Gujarat in 2002. She is a member of the National Employment Guarantee Council. Her work has won her many awards and honours a few of which are:
- In 2000, she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership and International Understanding.
- In 2010 she received the prestigious Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia and Management.
After getting the Ramon Magsaysay Award, she was asked from where she got this idea. The reply shows her humility. She said “Many collectives of the poor people struggling for change gave us the ideas and the commitment to bring about meaningful change. In fact, this has been one of the outstanding lessons of my 25 years of work in rural Rajasthan. I owe my ideas to the clarity of others; my courage to being with people who confront injustice with fearlessness and equanimity; my hope to the persistence and resilience of men and women struggling to get themselves heard; my generosity to the poor family that shared its last roti (bread) with me and my sense of well being to the many who have supported me in difficult moments of my life”.
What is NAC?
The National Advisory Council (NAC) is an advisory body consisting of distinguished professionals from diverse fields of development activity. It has an amalgamation of activists, bureaucrats, economists, politicians and other prominent people set up to advise the Prime Minister of India. It has been called as the conscience keeper and also the Shadow Cabinet. Ms Sonia Gandhi was heading it as the Chairperson till her resignation on 23 March 2006 after a controversy over the "Office of profit" issue. On 29 March 2010, she joined back as the chairperson of NAC.
The NAC provides inputs for the formulation of policy by the Government and also aids in its legislative business. Its chief emphasis has been on social policy and the rights of the disadvantaged groups.
The constitution of NAC has been debated – some claiming it to be a power centre against the constitution while other countering it with the argument that it would deepen democracy by facilitating greater prelegislative/pre-policy consultation.
Recently, the NAC has drafted recommendations for a mandatory prelegislative consultative process which have remarkable potential to democratize the law making process. Readers may refer to the articles:-
- “Should the process of law making be as per the RTI Act?” Link - http://www.rtifoundationofindia.com/should-process-law-making-be-rti-act-3703
- “Justice Verma committee receives 60,000 suggestions from the citizens”. Link - http://www.rtifoundationofindia.com/justice-verma-committee-receives-60000-suggestions-3142
Ms Aruna Roy was having a second term in NAC and had lent credibility to the organisation while taking up important public causes. In an interview, she said about her biggest achievement as “My biggest success is that I am still committed to my ideas of social change and have not lost heart”.
What were the major points of difference?
As a member of NAC, Ms Aruna Roy was instrumental in shaping the social welfare agenda of the Congress government. She has now joined the growing list of the members who served on the NAC and resigned. These include: Prof. M.S. Swaminathan - Agricultural scientist and MP; Dr. Ram Dayal Munda – MP; Jean Dreze - Development economist; Harsh Mander - former Bureaucrat; Madhav Gadgil – Ecologist. Does the parting indicate an increasing disillusionment of the civil society with the government?
She had expressed fear that many new Acts which have any kind of sensitivity in terms of economic or defence areas are now fashioned in such a way that they are kept out of the purview of the RTI. She had spoken about her disagreements with the government in the past which have been reported in the media. This site had reported a few such instances previously:-
- “Are newspapers entitled to filing of application under the RTI Act?” Link - http://www.rtifoundationofindia.com/are-newspapers-entitled-filing-application-under-r-3519
- “Aruna Roy opposes Maharashtra RTI Rule amendments”. Link - http://www.rtifoundationofindia.com/aruna-roy-opposes-maharashtra-rti-rule-amendments-2026
- “CBI and UID should be covered under the RTI ambit”. Link - http://www.rtifoundationofindia.com/cbi-and-uid-should-be-covered-under-rti-ambit-1869
Ms Roy was unhappy about the delay in some landmark measures and had pointed to a clear lack of political will in taking up social welfare legislations and disarray in Parliament, not only on the part of the government but also other political parties. Her disillusionment appears to be primarily due to the following factors:-
- Right to Information (RTI) Act is being undermined and adequate measures are not being taken to strengthen the Act, specially the Pro-active disclosure.
- Many new laws are being taken up by the government with a provision that they are beyond the Right to Information Act.
- The unique identification project was criticised by her as a managerial tool of unproven value.
- The government has adopted a pro-market ideology and is pushing for a growth agenda at the cost of poor people.
- The refusal of the government to pay minimum wages was not to her liking.
- She had criticised the delay in the passage of the food security bill, Lokpal Bill, whistle blowers' protection bill and grievance redressal laws.
- She blamed a "small but vocal minority" for working to undermine the rural employment guarantee scheme.
It appears that over a period of time, she has realised that her presence is not making the kind of impact on the government policies which she desired. That perhaps could have been the crucial factor in her decision to part ways and go back to her roots. Her disagreements seem to be directed towards all political parties and not UPA in particular.
By virtue of being on an important forum, she had an opportunity to make a deeper impact which would be lost. She is one of those who had the ears of Ms Sonia Gandhi to whisper a thought and hence, her continuation would have been a matter of consolation for all those who are committed to the RTI movement. She is likely to be now more vocal in opposing the policies of the government which she feels strongly against. Her parting words of thanks to Ms Gandhi for fostering a tradition of healthy debate within the NAC and hope to work to strengthen popular participation in welfare programmes indicate that at personal level, the equation still seems to be working.
When asked about her next assignment after separating from NAC, she said, "I want to shift from an advisor to activist. I want to go back and concentrate on those issues which are still pending like Food Security Bill and accountability legislations." It is hoped that her battle for RTI movement to provide unhampered access to information would continue unabated. As long her resolve remains, her work would continue irrespective of whether she remains in NAC or not.
The letter written by her to Ms Sonia Gandhi reads:-
Mrs. Sonia Gandhi
Motilal Nehru Marg,
New Delhi 11th May 2013
Dear Mrs Gandhi,
This is in continuation of the conversation we had some time ago, when I had requested that I not be considered for another term in the NAC. I am grateful for your accepting my request, while assuring your continued support to campaigns for social sector causes being taken up outside the NAC.
While the NAC has dealt with many important issues over the last year, I would like to take this opportunity to record my appreciation for issues taken up by the working group I co-ordinated. These issues have been processed by the NAC and have been sent to Government for necessary action.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA): The NAC working group on implementation of flagship programmes took up several issues related to implementation of the MGNREGA. The recommendations of the working group were sent to the Ministry, which has set up a programme advisory group to oversee implementation of these recommendations and the new guidelines that have been issued by the MoRD. Despite its contribution to changing the lives of the rural poor, implementation of this crucial flagship programme remains a challenge. There is a huge group of MGNREGA beneficiaries who are critical, but supportive of the law. They are losing public and political space to a small, vocal, and powerful minority determined to undermine the basic objectives of the MGNREGA. I feel it is time to concentrate on building peoples campaigns for effective mobilisation around the MGNREGA. Hopefully, the measures initiated by the Ministry will provide support to these efforts, and the MGNREGA will come closer to achieving its true potential.
I do believe that it is extremely unfortunate the Prime Minister rejected the NAC recommendations on payment of minimum wages to MGNREGA workers and chose instead to appeal the Karnataka High Court judgment ordering the payment of minimum wages to MGNREGA workers. Even more distressing is the Government’s refusal to pay minimum wages even after the Supreme Court refused to stay the Karnataka High Court judgment. It is difficult to understand how a country like India can deny the payment of minimum wages and still makes claims of inclusive growth. However, I realise that this effort to persuade the Government to respect the minimum wages law must now continue outside the NAC.
Pre Legislative Process: It is a matter of great significance that the NAC has approved a pre legislative consultative process and will send it to Government for necessary action. In my opinion, the NAC is itself a kind of pre legislative body that has benefited immensely from the public consultations it has held. The functioning of the Justice J S Verma Committee, and its celebrated report were also an outcome of a pre legislative consultative process. The NAC recommendations on this issue, are the beginnings of what will hopefully grow into a more robust and detailed process of public consultation. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that mandatory public consultation and engagement is one of the most important facets of a participatory democracy. Indian Democracy will certainly be strengthened, if the NAC recommendations are acted upon by Government.
The recent record of Parliament on debating policy and legislation underscores the need for this process. Given the hunger and malnutrition scenario in the country, a food security Bill should have been debated and passed by Parliament by now. There has been extensive and healthy debate within the NAC as well as in the public domain on the provisions of the Bill, making it clear that if Parliament were to take it up, it would most likely result in robust and well supported legislation. While questions of poor delivery of social sector programmes continue to plague us, the debates over the past two years have given us a very sound set of measures which should be enacted without delay.
The Working Group on Transparency and Accountability also took up a number of accountability legislations, including the Lok Pal, Grievance Redress Bill, Whistleblower protection Bill etc albeit for a short period of time. Many of those legislations have been through Parliamentary committees and now urgently need to be enacted. The campaign to have these legislations enacted, and peoples monitoring mechanisms such as social audits, must be strengthened. I feel the immediate enactment of these measures is critical to the future of democratic governance in India. The primary need is to act, and I realise once again that the place where I now need to concentrate my energies is outside the NAC.
I would like to place on record my gratitude and appreciation to you, and other members of the NAC for the opportunity I have been given to pursue causes of the poor and marginalised, as well as issues related to transparency, accountability, and democratic governance. I have had in the NAC a very competent and capable set of colleagues who extended the critical, analytical support needed to turn ideas that originate in peoples campaigns and movements, into workable draft policy initiatives.
I would also like to record my deep appreciation of the democratic freedom I enjoyed as a member of the NAC. I can say with absolute certainty, that I have expressed my views fully and openly. It has never been even mildly suggested by you as the Chair, that I curtail my expression either within, or outside the NAC. This has given me the space to finish my term with the NAC, with the confidence that I contributed my best to its functioning; without intellectual compromise, or negatively affecting my role outside.
I look forward to a continued association with you, and all the members of the NAC, and to petitioning the NAC from the outside!
With many thanks
With warm personal regards,